Couple who saved $40,000 in two years to travel the world
Aug.29, Hanoi: In 2011, Mark and Britnee Johnston took their first big trip as a couple together, jetting halfway across the world to Vietnam. They had saved an entire year’s worth of vacation days for the trip, which in typical American fashion, amounted to just two weeks.
As they were rushing around from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, they came across fellow travelers who had just started their adventures and spoke of plans to spend months if not years crisscrossing the globe. Suddenly, two weeks didn’t feel like enough, especially when they realized they’d have to wait an entire year to travel again. “When we got home we were somewhat unsatisfied, we were left craving far more,” says Mark.
It didn’t take long for Britnee to get a wild idea: Why didn’t they drop everything and see the world?
At the time, the couple was living in Utah, where Britnee was working as a communications director at a non-profit and Mark was a photographer at a local newspaper. They were still relatively untethered —they didn’t have any children or own a house. They were also looking for a change.
“I’ve always been career-focused and had been working a lot,” says Britnee, 27, who adds that she never studied abroad in college. “I started feeling like I was missing out on something.”
Mark, 35, had come to the realization that he was in a dead-end position with no prospect of a promotion or raise in sight. Armed with a communications degree, he was starting to plot a transition from journalism into public relations, which would require him to quit his job anyway.
Still, he had concerns about whether the money would be better spent on a down payment for a home or tucked away for retirement, or whether they’d find jobs when they came back. He also wondered if he was too old and had missed his chance, and instead should be more focused on advancing his career and putting down roots. He regretted spending his 20s rushing from one thing to the next, enrolling in college right after six years in the Marine Corps and then jumping into a full-time job.
As he was grappling with these questions, he read The New American Road Trip Mixtape, in which 32-year-old Brendan Leonard hits the road in search of meaning after a break-up. These words stuck out: “The time to do a Grand Tour was now, when you’d made some mistakes, gotten some scars, some battle damage from life, and you could think about all that stuff out there.”
Deciding it was better late than never, and his age might actually allow him to get more out of traveling, Mark was on board. Quietly, the couple began knocking out remaining debt and socking away money. Their goal: To save enough money to quit their jobs and travel the world for a year.
“We knew people who talked about big things and never did them. We didn’t want that to happen to us so we kept it on the down low,” says Mark.
They tackled the existing balances on their credit cards and car loans first by draining the couple thousand dollars in their existing savings account, which they had started when they got married in 2012. That left them with a balance hovering around zero.
Neither of the 2009 Utah Valley University grads had student loans, since Britnee received scholarships to cover her tuition and Mark, a former Marine Corps member, went to school on the GI bill.
So, next, they turned their attention to socking away money. They figured they needed about $40,000 for a one-year trip.
To arrive at this number, Britnee had pored over a lot of travel blogs that had published detailed budgets. She also priced out every major expense, down to the cost of plane tickets and hotels on the dates they expected to be traveling and the cost of visas to each country. (Russia takes the cake with the cost of a visa amounting to $410.) They guesstimated the cost of eating in locales from France to Mongolia and how much they’d shell out for pricey attractions.
“I kind of went overboard in planning, maybe,” Britnee, who took the reins on planning, says a bit sheepishly. “She’s a little obsessive,” echoes Mark, who sums up his involvement as sitting down to see what she came up with and nodding approval.
Unlike a lot of married couples, they decided to start managing their money separately in preparation for the trip. Each was tasked with a savings goal of $20,000, which came out to about $1,000 a month for nearly two years. “We were each personally responsible for meeting this team goal, and wouldn’t want to let the other one down,” says Mark, describing a savings system that comes across as simultaneously competitive and cooperative.
Together the couple was pulling in about $80,000 in income. They decided to sock away half of their paychecks right away, so they wouldn’t be tempted to spend the money. Each month, they would split their $1,000 rent, utilities, groceries and other bills.
Then they would work together to keep expenses down. For two years they stayed in more often, resisted upgrading their phones and ate lots and lots of tuna fish sandwiches. Mark started skipping his frequent visits to REI, his favorite store, and Britnee squelched her wanderlust and poured her energy into making plans and counting down the days.
It wasn’t all sacrifices all the time though. The couple says they’re thankful that they love the outdoors and have great hiking, rock climbing and mountain biking a mere 10-15 minutes away. They also made the decision to keep their gym memberships and Netflix subscription, figuring it was important to continue exercising and streaming movies was a good, cheap substitute for a night out on the town.
“We realized we didn’t have to go extremes for this,” says Mark. “At first we were intimidated by cutting expenses and living really frugally, but it wasn’t that bad.”
In addition to watching their expenses, both picked up some freelance work on the side, with Mark snapping up photography assignments and Britnee sometimes logging two or three hours a night after work doing content writing and social media for clients.
This helped them not only save enough for their trip but allowed them to continue socking away a little bit of money for retirement in their 401(k)s and for health care expenses in their HSAs. They also wanted to pad their landing when they returned and saved about $10,000 in a “coming home” fund.
“Over the couple of years we were saving, we realized how easy it was,” says Britnee. “When we got home, we could just start all over again.”
The couple had originally planned to depart in August 2014, when their lease ended, but due to visa issues they had to accelerate their departure to May. Unfortunately this meant they faced a hefty $2,000 early lease termination fee for their apartment. Their strategic solution: Pay the fee, leave the apartment earlier and make up the $2,000 by moving in with Mark’s parents for March and April. So into the basement of Mark’s parents’ nearby house they went. Their two-month stay there saved them exactly enough on rent to cover the cost of breaking their lease.
While they moved out of their apartment, they decided to keep one car (selling the other) and cram all their major furniture in a storage unit (“like tetris,” says Mark), so they could restart their lives with relative ease. Then one day, they walked into their bosses’ offices and said they were quitting.
Shortly after, with their belongings stuffed into a backpack and passports in hand, they boarded a plane to Tokyo and were off on a one-year adventure of a lifetime.
The couple spent their first two months in Japan and China. Then they took the Trans-Siberian Railway through Mongolia and Russia before touring extensively through Europe and making their way back to Southeast Asia and ultimately finishing their trip in South America. They detailed their adventures on their blog, OneWorldOneYear.com.
At first, they were pretty rigid about spending as little as possible to make sure their savings stretched to cover the whole year, and even compensated for a pricey start to the trip by eating less. Mark, who at 6’6” towers over his wife, had a particularly tough time with this tactic and was rapidly losing weight.
“I decided to be a lot more lenient,” says Britnee of her decision to scrap her spreadsheets. “I realized it wasn’t that fun to keep track of our finances every day.”
Especially on vacation, they reasoned. That doesn’t mean they splurged, though. They often stayed in hostel dorm rooms for under $30 a night where they hand washed their clothes and used the kitchen to cook meals. They also lodged with friends and family (Mark’s from Scotland and has family in Finland) whenever they had the chance. They bargain-hunted for the cheapest transportation options, which at one point yielded a $1.50 Megabus ticket from Paris to Barcelona. They did, though, sometimes buy bottled water, take slightly more expensive (but more trustworthy) airlines and occasionally buy souvenirs and postcards.
Since the Johnstons had the advantage of being flexible and able to plan ahead, they also sometimes tweaked their itinerary based on cost. For instance, they stayed in Norway, where fish soup cost $16, for just four days. Yet they ended up staying in the Annapurna region of Nepal for a month, where they spent a mere $36 for the whole month to stay in teahouses.
In the end, it all seemed to balance out.
“When we went to countries we knew were expensive, like Norway, we knew it would be offset by cheaper places like Southeast Asia and Finland where we stayed with Mark’s family,” says Britnee.
The final tally: 26 countries, 78 cities, one year. The final cost: $48,000, which was over their budget by $8,000.
Part of the added cost was due to the decision to go to Bolivia and Turkey, which they hadn’t originally planned on. They also found out halfway through their travels that they could expect a sizable tax refund. So between the refund from Uncle Sam and a little help from their “coming home” fund, they were able to return home with zero debt and some reserve money left over.
Their homecoming has been a smash success. Both have landed jobs, with Britnee getting hired in the first week of coming home in May and Mark starting a full-time position in public relations in early August.
They also made the move from Orem to Salt Lake City and opted for a nicer apartment than they had previously, succumbing to their desire for a comfortable place to live after a year on the road.
“We’re better off now than when we left, in terms of income and our standard of living,” says Mark.
Now that they both have full-time jobs, they’re starting to get their finances back in order and plan to return to the same savings regimen they had before the trip. They figure if they could save half of their income before, when they were making less money, they can do it now, no problem.
It won’t go toward another huge trip, though, at least anytime soon. For their next vacation, they’re picturing a lazy, beach getaway sometime during the winter doldrums.
“You don’t have to be a millionaire to travel, which is a misconception I had growing up,” says Britnee.